Forget the blood stains on the floor of the second bedroom—those were just a myth invented by my sadistic uncle to torture my sister and me with sleepless nights. No one had ever died in that bedroom, no matter what he said. No, the real haunting was rooted deeper in its history, a real history that reached back to 1912, the date etched into the elaborate iron knocker on the front door. My parents had bought the house from Mr. Davis—I never knew his first name—and Mr. Davis had bought it from Mr. Armstrong, who had built it, square and brick and strong, with ornate plaster ceilings and glossy oaken woodwork the likes of which you won’t see in a house today. But Davis—in my view—was the problem, in life and in death.My parents had started as renters when Davis moved into a nursing home. They ended as buyers—of the house and all its contents—so that his daughters could pay to keep him there. And the haunting began not long after his death, when my father, up late into the morning working on his dissertation, felt the temperature plunge to an unearthly cold and something came into the room, an invisible presence, watchful and possessive. Three times that happened, and soon enough my father started going to bed with the rest of us. But that didn’t stop the whispers. Just at the edge of hearing they were, in the quiet hours of the night, faint and faraway, the words indistinguishable, reaching out across vast oceans of infinity (to borrow Lovecraft’s language, if not his meaning) to claim possession of what it had lost. Nothing stopped it, not until years later, when my parents replaced the last of Mr. Davis’s furniture—severing his final connection to the house, or that’s how I always figured it.For with rare exceptions—Anne Rivers Siddons’s The House Next Door being the finest example I can think of (and even it cheats)—the haunted house, like so much gothic fiction, is about the connection of the past and present; the grievous loss that reaches out across the void to reclaim its own. The unexpiated sin that stains the present and exacts its terrible revenge. The canon is rife with such examples, from Hawthorne’s House of Seven Gables and Poe’s House of Usher to Henry James’s Bly and Shirley Jackson’s Hill House.
In Danse Macabre, his near-classic treatment of horror in the twentieth century, Stephen King deals us a Tarot hand of three archetypes that he believes the modern genre to be built upon: the Vampire, the Werewolf, and The Thing Without a Name. Yet he shorts us a card, the Haunted House, which he does not “credit . . . as a genuine card in the Tarot hand of the supernatural myth” for reasons that he does not elucidate. But the haunted house of the American gothic—and the haunted castle of its European progenitors—is, I would argue, the most important gothic archetype of all. It is here that Dracula, the seminal vampire, resides with the three ghostly vampire brides that assault the novel’s hero, Jonathan Harker, and here—in the cinematic (and best-known) versions of the myth—that Frankenstein calls down the fire of heaven to animate his nameless horror. And it is here that, as the European gothic tradition of institutional sin (aristocratic and ecclesiastic) gave way to an American tradition more concerned with the personal sin of its Puritan colonists, the castle gave way to the house: they are merely different sides of the same coin. In the werewolf myth alone, setting plays a diminished role, primarily because the trope looks inward, at the divided state of the human soul, rather than outward at the connection between past and present—yet even here, the decaying gothic mansion often makes its appearance, as in the latest cinematic iteration of The Wolf Man. In short, setting—the Bad Place, King ultimately calls it—is at the very heart of what the modern horror writer, and her gothic predecessor, does.
But the archetype of the Bad Place is both less and more than the haunted house. It is broader in that it can be any place from the haunted deeps of Tolkien’s Fangorn Forest to the (seemingly) peaceful cove where swims the eponymous (and amphibious) Creature from the Black Lagoon. The Bad Place, in short, can be any and every place—and often is, which makes it plenty scary. It’s like a bad penny: you never know where it’s going to turn up (or worse, when you’re going to turn up in it).Yet it is narrower in the sense that the depths of its horrors pale beside those of the haunted house, for the secular house we inhabit is our most sacred place. The house is, as the saying goes, a man’s castle. The juxtaposition of the two terms suggests that this is the place where the European and American gothic traditions conjoin, while the adage itself claims that the house is the place, and maybe the only place, where we can assert mastery over any external forces that may threaten us. We lock ourselves in and lock the world, from the perils of office politics to the horrors of Hannibal Lecter, out.
How potent is the house as an image? It is, first of all, something more than a mere structure. It is a home, the center of warmth and safety in the bosom of the family—the place, Robert Frost, tells us, where they have to take you in. “It takes a heap o’ livin’ in a house t’ make it home,” Edgar Guest asserts, and statistical descriptions of the American Dream (a house, a car, 2.4 kids) give it place of primacy, as does the American tax code. It is our primary class marker and our central symbol of domesticity, wherein resides the homemaker—who is sometimes the victim of a broken home. The Lutz family of The Amityville Horror, in buying the house where Ronald Defeo murdered his entire family (that much is true), was buying a piece of the American Dream. When they can’t make the payments—and the walls start to bleed—they find themselves living out the American nightmare. Perhaps the symbolic weight of the haunted house tale is most evident in its most famous iteration, Stephen King’s The Shining.
The Overlook Hotel, high in the Colorado Rockies, where Jack Torrance and his family take on the task of winter caretakers, is home to two histories. In its capacity as a hotel, it has a public (though not publicized) history that includes mob murders, the financial misdeeds of a Howard Hughes-like figure and the brief residency of four presidents, among them perhaps the most corrupt, Richard Nixon. It is a ghostly brief for the dark underbelly of American history. Yet it also serves, albeit only for a short time, as the home of Jack Torrance and his family, and it is the ghosts that Jack Torrance carries within him, of child abuse and alcoholism, that ultimately render him vulnerable to the supernatural forces that inhabit the hotel. The intersections of two histories—national and personal—result in the destruction of the Torrance family, a destruction that echoes the potential destruction we all face, national, financial, and familial.
Which brings me back to the blight on my family home. One night, when I was a boy (I must have been nine or ten, years before we expunged the last trace of Mr. Davis from the house) I woke in a cold room to find a dark figure standing in my doorway. “Dad,” I said, but the figure didn’t answer, and I lay there in terror, my breath unfurling in the dark until at last sleep claimed me once again. Only years later would I wonder if the figure could have been Mr. Davis—the Mr. Davis who had lived the American Dream as well as its dark underside, who had scrimped and saved to buy his dream house only to lose it in the end—to age, to financial exigency, to death. The same thing seems to be happening to my parents now, as they move deeper into their eighties, and someday, I suppose, the same thing will happen to me.
And to you.
What’s scary about haunted houses is that they bring the horror home.
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